Racism is endemic in fashion. Naomi Campbell's 'name and shame' might be the answer

The catwalk is white-washed, and industry insiders have been passing the buck for too long. A new tactic from The Diversity Coalition might finally change something.

This year, at New York Fashion Week, 6 per cent of catwalk models were black and 9.1 per cent were Asian. 2 per cent were Latina; 0.3 per cent were categorised as ‘other’. And 82.7 per cent were white.

Like so many scandals in fashion, this could easily have been tacitly ignored by onlookers or resignedly accepted. Instead, a trio of industry insiders – models Naomi Campbell and Iman, and former model agent Bethann Hardison – have branded themselves as The Diversity Coalition and used their uniquely prestigious platforms to name and shame those designers who put on all-white shows at the Fall/Winter New York Fashion Week 2013. A minimalist website run by the three industry heavyweights compiles lists of shows which have excluded non-white models, often headed by names dripping with kudos: Alexander Wang, Victoria Beckham, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta.

The fashion industry isn’t known for its enthusiastic embracement of diversity. Take the so-called ‘size zero debate’: when agents were accused of recruiting models outside the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders as young girls with anorexia left their appointments, the industry responded with a collective shrug of all their bony shoulders. Outspoken commitments to slots for ‘plus size’ models abound, but the shows often fail to materialise. Various countries and Fashion Weeks have announced BMI-based initiatives intended to prevent unhealthily thin models from working and to stem the demand for them - then quietly reneged upon these promises. Pleas from consumers to stop heavily Photoshopped fashion photography that makes models appear impossibly lithe have also been met with the equivalent of a condescending pat on the head (let’s not forget that 84,000 people – mostly teenage girls – signed a petition asking Seventeen magazine to commit to publishing one un-retouched photograph per issue last year, which the teen mag’s editor never properly acted upon. But she did offer the 14 year old author of the petition an internship.)

Where race is concerned, fashion has an equally serious problem. Most of this revolves around passing the buck: agents say that they can’t take on as many non-white models because designers are reluctant to book them, so it’s bad for business. Designers say that because the agents aren’t employing them, they don’t have enough non-white models to choose from to fit their ranges. Make-up artists who have no make-up for darker skin tones and hair stylists who don’t know how to work with black hair argue that they can’t afford to train or buy materials for the types of models they hardly ever encounter. Fashion Week coordinators say that it’s the designers’ responsibility to hire their own clients, and to involve themselves in the process would be anti-capitalist. Magazines argue that the catwalk dictates what and who is ‘in’, and they just follow the money. It’s an age-old story of discrimination: each individual playing a part in a system that excludes certain types of people, and none willing to take any responsibility for it.

How should fashion respond? When someone important enough has brought up the issue in the past, it has been met with a brief surge of shame-faced tokenism on the runway. For the few non-white models who are lucky enough to have fought their way on to agents’ books in the first place, this realistically translates into increased competition between each other, and the driving down of wages. In order to make themselves desirable for the one or two slots available (if there are more than two black models in a show, it's apparently seen as 'a black thing'), these models often agree to work for less money. Once again, non-white employees are underpaid and underrepresented because of the colour of their skin.

According to a Jezebel report depressingly entitled ‘Fashion Week’s models are getting whiter’ – one that backs up statistically what Campbell has already said anecdotally about fashion moving backwards since she first started modelling – the industry is getting worse. But of course, none of these agents, designers, casting directors, fashion coordinators, make-up artists and stylists would individually identify as racist. No longer will this excuse hold, according to The Diversity Coalition. They have pre-empted the argument, and succinctly stated: “No matter the intention, the result is racism.”

Amongst all of their rhetoric and their broken promises, their refusal to ever properly identify or tangibly solve their own unequivocal problems, fashionistas have been caught short by Campbell and co's cool-headed approach. Numbers and names are harder to manipulate than vague 'calls for change' or 'commitments needed for the future'. Anyone can click on The Diversity Coalition's website and see exactly who is part of the problem. If enough people hold these designers to account, the famously inflexible runway royals might even listen.

Perhaps, having had their shows thoroughly named and shamed, we could finally start to see a change from fashion that goes beyond token black models on a white-washed catwalk.

Iman, Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede pose at the 'Blacks In Fashion' panel discussion in New York. Image: Getty
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.